Reflections from Manila

By Steve Baird

I visited Manila, Philippines for the first time in November to see first hand the work of IJM in tackling the horrific online sexual exploitation of children.

I was struck by the dedication and tenacity of our team and partners. On day one, I learned that trying to find these children is like finding a needle in a haystack twice.

Needle #1. To make rescue possible, our investigators scour the internet with local authorities for endless hours looking to match the faintest of clues. One investigator worked 19 hours straight urgently trying to match details to identify a young girl. In the end, he did.

Needle #2. Once identified, the next task is to find their homes. We drove across the city and through one of the areas where there have been a lot of rescues. The narrow laneways, shared living arrangements and internet accounts make trying to find them so tough. But there’s no rescue without a location. So find the homes we do.

Freedom doesn’t end with rescue. During my time in Manila, I also had the privilege of meeting a team of IJM social workers. Our social workers journey with the children every step of the way. They assess both immediate and long term needs, and walk alongside the survivors from rescue to restoration.

The story that stuck with me is one social worker recalling “the smell”. She shared:

I recall the smell from one operation. The child had not been bathed for a week, and was covered in chicken pox. His most immediate need was a long bath.

The social workers’ heart for the children was very clear to me as they provided the many details of their work:

  • They accompany the rescue team and patiently wait three to four hours outside a rescue operation until it is safe to go in.
  • Their greatest reward is when the once scared and confused children begin to talk and their transformation begins.
  • They have accompanied the children not only throughout rescue and transformation, but also through weddings, funerals and birthdays – going beyond the call of duty and what is expected.

I distinctly remember the children in the aftercare shelter wanting to bear hug our group of visitors. It was a powerful moment that represented the fruits of our work in the fight to end online sexual exploitation of children.

Online sexual exploitation of children is one of the fastest growing major crimes in the world. I am still wrapping my head around how when it comes to online child abuse, Australia’s reputation is up there with the very worst offending nations in the world.

Since 2011, IJM has been partnering with law enforcement to tackle this crime, rescuing over 1000 victims of online sex abuse in the Philippines. When I learned that we had just recently passed 1,000 children rescued in the Philippines, I thought ‘wow, a great milestone.’ My trip to Manila made me appreciate just how much of a milestone it is, and the sheer dedication of our team to find the children.

Sadly, many of these child survivors were abused for the gratification of Australian sex offenders who paid to direct and view their exploitation online. That’s a harsh truth, but one which we as a country must own if we are to end this blight on our soul.

We cannot sit idly by. We must act.

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